How Social Development is Effected by Housing and Transportation Trends

We have talked before about how the home (particularly a large, suburban one) can become a tool of isolation, but since I can’t get enough of a good thing . . .

As we continue to fill our homes with amenities previously only available in public spaces, we increase our separation from our community. Movie theaters have moved into the home, and with the help of Netflix and streaming video, one doesn’t even need to go to a video store. With the increasing ubiquity of cable television, every sporting event can be delivered directly to your TV making a trip to the local pub unnecessary. Add the gigantic media room and you don’t even have to deal with strangers to watch the game with your friends. Pool tables, dart boards, horseshoes and other games of skill have plenty of space to exist in the home and the surrounding expanse of yard. Combined with driveway basketball courts and backyard soccer goals, public parks see less and less use. Now, I am no Luddite, and I certainly don’t begrudge anyone some in-house games of skill, but I wonder whether this ability for self contained entertainment is injuring our socialization skills or, since I now have one on the way, those of our children.

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We also see this compartmentalization in aspects of our lives outside the home. Online shopping keeps us out of retail areas, and while I can’t blame anyone for avoiding the malls and box stores, these are moments of interaction. For my part, I will say better moments might occur in the downtown shopping districts and main street environment, but regardless, these are times when we are outside our insulated shells, generating shared experience.

Cars shelter us from others as we travel to work (unlike buses, trains or walking), and cubicles continue the job when we get there. Even when we do enter a public space, we continue to surround ourselves with ourselves through our phones, iPods and video games.

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I realize that this isn’t a new idea, and I realize that some of what I’m saying makes me sound like my grandfather after a day with his tech-savvy grandkids. I also know that this sort of thing has gone on for some time with books instead of iPods, carriages instead of cars, guarded castles instead of gated communities, but I would argue that the scope of our separation has increased. We have made a larger portion of our society into a semi-cloistered aristocracy, and we have done so with greater thoroughness than was possible in the past.

I would argue that there are important skills that go undeveloped when social interaction decreases. Diplomatic abilities atrophy. Compromise becomes a foreign idea. Selfishness becomes less a vice and more a reasonable trait because, after all, the self is dominant in isolation. Reasoned debate is based on the simplest of social skills and it suffers from lack of exercise. Empathy withers from disuse. Community becomes increasingly faceless, the recognizable whittled down to those few that you invite into your enclave . . . dinner guests and relatives.

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I don’t necessarily think there is a true remedy for this. Nor do I believe that the components of this increased isolation are, in and of themselves, bad. I merely wonder at the potential ongoing effect if we continue along this course. If we keep building bigger, more self-contained homes, if we continue developing better and better means of electronic avoidance, if we are unable to free ourselves from the private automobile’s domination of our infrastructure, then what do we lose? For what will we become less equipped?

I will end with an opinion you have probably come to expect from me. I believe that part of the way we can return balance to our relationship with our community is by addressing the way we live, by looking, particularly, at housing and transportation. A reduction of home size and amenities is not only an ecological imperative, but a social one. It forces us out into the public sphere where we can share in the consumption of resources while we simultaneously interact to build relationships, understanding and social skills. The same is true with public transit and walking. Buses may teach us important, if somewhat unpleasant, lessons that cars have no ability to deliver. This naturally leads us to a denser, more urban way of living. Shared open space trumps backyards. Train lines are a higher priority than roads. Sidewalks are king. We improve the environment and increase the complexity and concreteness of our social relationships. Shouldn’t the benefits follow?

Now, I realize, as always, that I am not really qualified to pontificate on these matters. But, I know some of you out there are. So, tell me . . . Where am I right? Where am I wrong? What have I missed that adds to my argument? What have I ignored that undermines it?

Get into those comments.